The case of Madeleine McCann shows how we are hooked by unanswerable questions

For the public, the story provides a perverse comfort and familiarity at a time when other news feels frightening.

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The disappearance of Madeleine McCann in May 2007 is a story much mythologised by the British press. After the fateful night in Praia da Luz, Portugal, when Gerry and Kate McCann went to dinner with friends a short distance from their holiday apartment and returned to find their three-year-old daughter Madeleine gone, the McCanns were hounded by the press. Over the years that followed, they became suspects, then were unsuspected. The McCanns doggedly pursued answers through private investigators and public authorities, using the media to keep the case alive as scraps of evidence surfaced about their daughter’s whereabouts, her possible attacker, and whether she might still be alive. Madeleine – or Maddie, as she is known fondly in households across the UK, her name carrying the same solemn weight as Lady Di – became the poster girl for vicarious tragedy.

In recent weeks, Madeleine’s case has resurfaced again. The extent of the coverage is such that this is now a double-layered story: on one level the reporting on the story itself, and on another speculation about the reporting (this article included). Why does the face of a three-year-old girl who disappeared 13 years ago feature on the front pages of British newspapers amid a pandemic and a global revolt against systemic racism? Why do the tabloids continue to eke out the tragic story of a missing child, her suspected grisly fate and her grieving parents? In the New Statesman this week, Megan Nolan considers this question and finds tabloid fixation on the case “gratuitous and morbid”. “It has been decided that this is news,” she writes, “and will never cease being news.”

I found myself thinking about the other side of the question: how do the papers know the story will still sell? Though I agree that Madeleine McCann has become part of an easy press agenda guaranteed to attract attention – and perhaps, as Megan notes, to detract from the horrific police killing of a black man in the US – I am left wondering why this case retains such force.

In psychology, speculation and rumination – words that might describe on a micro level the British obsession with the McCanns  are often symptomatic of trying to find safety in certainty. “If I find the answer to this question, I will feel better,” we think. But sometimes this phenomenon is turned on its head. Though at surface level we may think we crave certainty, we still find ourselves drawn to questions that subconsciously we know have no answers. In a sense, we obtain certainty from them in a different way: a guarantee that we can ruminate on them endlessly, that they will be consuming enough for us to think of little else, and that the answer, which ultimately may be scarier than the question, is not forthcoming.

This is what struck me when the story resurfaced with full force last week: the discomfort of the unimaginable trauma for the McCanns provides the opposite for the British public – a perverse comfort and familiarity at a time when other news feels complex and frightening. But while the story is framed as a quest for answers, if the current suspect (a man imprisoned in Germany for sex crimes against multiple women and children) is confirmed as guilty of killing Madeleine, the British public will be bereft of a comfort, a subject into which to retreat when faced with others that demand urgent attention or action. 

On an individual level I have experienced something similar. In my experience of obsessive compulsive disorder, which for me manifests largely in obsessional rumination, I have observed this phenomenon first hand. I have pondered questions with no fixed answers every hour of the day for months on end to the point of breakdown: am I wrong about my sexuality? How do I know I really love my boyfriend? What if everything I say is a lie? What is existence? Am I insane? What if I am a bad person?

In therapy, much of the initial process of unhooking oneself from these dilemmas is to learn to tolerate uncertainty. When we are anxious, it is the absence of knowledge that feels the most threatening. We desperately want to find the answer so we can put the matter to bed and get on with our lives. But, as fellow obsessives will know, sometimes we do find an answer and still find ourselves pulled back into the question (what if that’s not the answer after all? What if I’m wrong?) and we ruminate once more. 

It is through observing this process that I’ve learned that the seduction of these fluid, frayed-edge issues is not in their propensity to provide certainty but the very opposite. For me and many people with anxiety, questions will often arise just at the point we have to undertake a difficult task or when we are confronted with an emotion much more painful than worry. These subjects are a distraction. Deep down, we know that as long as we are thinking about this thing, we won't have to deal with the other thing. Our brains trick us into thinking alternative matters are the priority.

In the case of the intrigue surrounding the Madeleine McCann case (and, indeed, all mysteries categorised as “true crime”) there is another layer of avoidance dampening the discomfort: no variant on the story actually has an effect on us. Imagining the horror of losing a child is close enough to home to draw us in, but far enough away – not least when it happened more than a decade ago – to be essentially unthreatening. And while many serialised true crime stories pose a binary question to their audience – was Steven Avery framed by police? Is Adnan Syed guilty? – the McCann story is almost entirely open-ended, with infinite space for projection and speculation.

All this is not to diminish the tragedy of the case, nor the troubling prospect that somebody got away with abduction or murder. But I have learned that it is easy to be tricked by questions with no immediate answers. When we find ourselves continually drawn in, both as individuals and members of society, we must not only learn to live with uncertainty but confront what it is they are pulling us away from. 

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.

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